You’re not going to lose a lot of bets by inferring that a candidate who says he is “suspending” his campaign is in fact about to drop out. But Rick Perry’s reconsideration of his role in the Republican nomination race appears to have been genuine and he is pressing forward for the time being.
Why did Mr. Perry decide to remain in the race? Knowing the answer is crucial to understanding whether Mr. Perry has any chance of mounting a comeback — and how his decision might reverberate upon Mitt Romney and the other Republican candidates.
Let me posit two hypothetical (and deliberately exaggerated) scenarios on how Mr. Perry’s decision came about:
Hypothetical Scenario A: Although most of Mr. Perry’s strategists were urging him to drop out of the race, he prayed on the decision, talked it over with his wife, and decided to ignore their advice. There was a strong emotional element to the decision: Mr. Perry felt embarrassed by his performance in Iowa and wanted the opportunity to redeem himself and go out on a better note.
Hypothetical Scenario B: Mr. Perry was prepared to drop out of the race, but his advisers saw a credible path to victory and urged otherwise. Moreover, he received a string of phone calls, text messages and e-mails from major donors, Republican elected officials and conservative activists who expressed their support and told him that he should press on. These party elites were concerned that Mr. Romney was going to waltz to the nomination, and they were either poorly disposed toward Rick Santorum or convinced that Mr. Santorum lacked the resources to seriously challenge Mr. Romney.
In Scenario A, Mr. Perry would have made a highly idiosyncratic and personal decision, and one that was somewhat willfully disconnected from the realities of the Republican nomination race. Scenario B is just the opposite: a highly informed and strategic decision, one made expressly because Mr. Perry had credible reasons to believe that he was still viable.
Scenario B is potentially very bad news for Mr. Romney. It implies that party elites are not coalescing around him. In fact, it suggests that a subgroup of party elites are so dissatisfied with Mr. Romney that they are behaving strategically in an effort to maximize their chances of denying him the nomination.
Scenario A is potentially very good news for Mr. Romney. It implies that Mr. Perry is continuing along in the race despite having no chance of winning the nomination, the consequence of which is that he is consuming scarce resources like cash and votes that might otherwise go to one of Mr. Romney’s more conservative opponents, like Mr. Santorum.
Political scientists tend to prefer explanations like Scenario B. In the maximal expression of this philosophy, any candidate who displays any interest at all in running for the presidency is in fact running for it, whether or not they take official steps like forming an exploratory committee or raising money. According to this philosophy, candidates like Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and Sarah Palin actually ran for president in 2012, but were winnowed from the field during the invisible primary once it became clear to them that there was not much support for their bids.
Pundits tend to prefer explanations like Scenario A. Candidates almost always offer personal explanations for their decisions (“I’m withdrawing to spend more time with my family”). Sometimes these are taken too credulously, without consideration of the strategic factors at play.
I find the political science perspective more persuasive on this issue. It can be taken too far and can sometimes overrate the rationality of political actors. But a politician’s decision about whether or not to run for president — or whether to continue to after a setback — is clearly not exogenous from the question of how viable he is.
Very strong reporting can sometimes help us to delineate between these two paradigms, and there happens to be some very strong reporting in the case of Mr. Perry’s decision, such as this pair of articles from my colleagues Nicholas Confessore and Katharine Q. Seelye. It suggests that both Scenario A and Scenario B played their part in Mr. Perry’s decision; it was partly personal but partly strategic.
Another very good piece of reporting, from Politico’s Jonathan Martin, adds some further context. Mr. Martin reports that a group of conservative leaders like James Dobson are thinking very explicitly about which candidate might have the best chance of toppling Mr. Romney. If Mr. Perry is among these candidates, it would make a lot of sense for him to wait out their decision.
But does Mr. Perry actually have a shot? This is a very difficult question to answer because of the highly ambiguous polling situation in South Carolina, where no public polls have been conducted in two weeks. My guess is that if you polled South Carolina today, it would show a close race between Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Perhaps Mr. Gingrich, who once held a large lead there, would still be ahead, but if so his support is likely to be soft, especially given his middling performance in the Iowa caucuses.
If that is the case, perhaps Mr. Perry does have some justification to continue his campaign. Mr. Perry’s polling in South Carolina has not been good recently. But if you need only 20 percent of the vote to lead the field there, or if the number of undecideds or weakly committed voters remains high, you would not need all that much momentum to contend.
Mr. Perry will probably not get that momentum unless there is some intervention to help him. His inertia is negative at the moment. He did not perform well in Iowa, which is geographically Midwestern but whose caucus demographics are closer to those of a Southern state.
But if there is some concerted effort to help Mr. Perry — if conservative elites rally to his defense and publicly promote the idea that he still has the best chance of stopping Mr. Romney — the rules of the game might be different, and Mr. Perry might have a chance of winning there. It may be relevant that Mr. Santorum, although reliably conservative on social issues, is a Northerner rather than a Southerner, a Catholic rather than an evangelical Protestant, and as much a policy wonk as a populist, qualities that would not traditionally play well to South Carolina’s electorate.
There are a lot of if-then statements here, and I would not assign high odds to Mr. Perry making a comeback — much less actually winning the nomination. And there is reason to be skeptical of the idea that conservative elites would throw their support to Mr. Perry now when it would have been more advantageous for them to do so before Iowa.
Nevertheless, Mr. Perry does have some relatively unique strengths as a candidate, at least in comparison to this year’s Republican field, and sometimes optimal decision-making is clouded by the fog of war that accompanies the Iowa caucuses.
It may very well happen that Mr. Perry decides to drop his bid after all. He may drop it before South Carolina, particularly if Mr. Santorum’s near-victory in Iowa translates into clear signs of momentum in that state and in New Hampshire and if he begins to receive the support of conservative elites.
But we do not yet have enough evidence to conclude that Mr. Perry has been winnowed out, or that his interest in remaining in the race is merely perfunctory.